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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Rikers Civil-Rights Settlement Approved

MANHATTAN (CN) - Efforts to clamp down on civil-rights abuses at Rikers Island will provide an "important example for other correctional systems throughout the country," a federal judge predicted today, approving the settlement of class action that drew support from U.S. prosecutors.

"The way we treat inmates not only affects the lives of those individuals, but conveys important messages about how we as a society value these individuals and the communities to which they will return," U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain at the conclusion of the hour-long fairness hearing.

"Such serious attention to the safety, supervision and monitoring of inmates and corrections personnel alike, requires and confirms the recognition of the worth and dignity of every human being," Swain continued.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara intervened in the underlying class action last year, months after condemning "The Lord of the Flies" treatment faced by teens whom the New York City facility locks up.

Before it grew into a class action on behalf of tens of thousands, the case filed pro se by former Rikers inmate Mark Nunez in 2011 had humble roots.

Since that time, the U.S. Attorney's Office has charged corrections officers for the death of an inmate and with smuggling drugs inside of prison.

While New York Times editorialists and other critics have questioned whether Rikers should be shuttered, prosecutors and the city etched out a deal laying out a path for reform.

First revealed in June, the 14-point deal included beefed-up surveillance, a new use-of-force policy, disciplinary guidelines to punish misconduct and a pilot program for body-worn cameras.

The parties tapped attorney Steve Martin, who has monitored more than 700 jailhouses in the United States and abroad, to oversee the wide-ranging reforms.

A city lawyer assured the court at Wednesday's hearing that reforms are "already underway," and the Department of Corrections is ready to "hit the ground running."

Granting the settlement in full, Swain also approved $6.5 million in attorneys' fees for class counsel. She noted that only one class member notified of the settlement complained that it did not go far enough.

Martin, as court-appointed monitor, will produce reports charting the progress of the reform.

"The ultimate success of what you have achieved here today will be measured in the years to come, and I look forward to seeing rapid and meaningful progress reflected in the monitor's reports," Swain said.

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